Curriculum leadership: waving goodbye to genericism?

In a recent blog on educational genericism, Michael Fordham argued “the more likely that an idea might be relevant to all the subjects, the less likely that the idea might be useful to any individual subject.”  

This goes to the core of much practice in schools which has tended to favour the generic over the subject specific. I won’t repeat Michael’s argument here, but it is certainly worth a read if you haven’t already. 

What I’d like to do is offer a complementary but alternative take on the issue Michael raises. In short, I share some of Michael’s concern that genericism in curriculum leadership can be problematic. And the challenge for school leaders is that their input into the curriculum life of the school often tends to reside in the generic. After all, it’s a tough ask to expect leaders to be subject experts across the entirety of the curriculum. 

That said, I also think leaders can and do play an important role in improving curriculum practice in their schools. Engagement with the work of the likes of Jon Hutchinson, Claire Stoneman, Jonathan Mountstevens, Stuart Lock and Michael himself is enough to convince me of that.

But I wonder if there is value in offering an explicit means of considering how leaders might develop curriculum practice without distorting subjects, exploring how the generic and the specific might be navigated by leaders. This might be particularly relevant in those schools where necessity dictates that leaders drive the curriculum discourse in a school, at least at the outset.   

In this blog I tentatively offer one way we might conceptualise how this might be done, once again using Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), and its concept of ‘semantics’, as a tool for analysis.

Semantic gravity & semantic density – setting the scene

LCT’s notion of semantics is concerned with two key aspects:

Semantic density: The degree of condensation of meaning. Knowledge practices with strong semantic density encompass a broad range of meanings. LCT research shows that teachers often move from highly condensed terms (SD+) to more simple terms, reducing the range of meanings as they go (SD-). 

For example, ‘revolution’ has fairly strong semantic density. It captures a range of meanings in history alone, as well as in terms of an object that revolves around an axis – like a wheel. But if we moved from revolution to describe ‘mutiny’ or ‘rebellion’, the condensation of meanings is reduced, weakening the semantic density. 

Semantic gravity: The degree to which meaning relates to a particular context. Knowledge practices and terms with strong semantic gravity (SG+) relate to specific contexts. Where meaning is less fixed to a specific context semantic gravity is weakened (SG-).

For example, if we return to ‘revolution’, it has fairly weak semantic gravity – it is not tied to a specific context. But if we moved on to talk about the French revolution we strengthen the semantic gravity. We would strengthen it further again by talking about the Storming of the Bastille. 

Research in LCT shows that we tend to see movements upwards and downwards a semantic scale, as we move from abstract terms and practices that condense a range of meanings and are not tied to a specific context (SG-, SD+), to more concrete terms and practices which encompass fewer meanings and are tied to a specific context (SG+, SD-). 

LCT considers these movements as creating ‘semantic profiles’ (see diagram below). For example, during a lesson it’s possible to plot how teachers’ explanations move as they take pupils from abstract to concrete and back. LCT research suggests that achievement in a field tends to be characterized by the ability to ‘wave’ – to move up and down the semantic profile. In teaching terms this often means unpacking and repacking concepts, exploring abstract ideas and showing their application in concrete examples and so forth. 

Maton, K. (2013) Making semantic waves: A key to cumulative knowledge-building, Linguistics and Education 24: 18–22, page 13.

So what?

Firstly, we have to understand that developing curriculum expertise, designing curriculum, talking about curriculum, evaluating curriculum etc are practices concerned with knowledge building. In the example above I suggested how a teacher in a history lesson might move from abstract concepts like ‘revolution’ to more concrete understandings such as ‘Storming of the Bastille’. This shows one way in which knowledge-building takes place (in the classroom in this case). But what if we consider the development of curriculum expertise across a school as an act of knowledge-building?

My conjecture is that it might be helpful to consider it in terms of a ‘wave’ in the way identified by LCT. Schools need to be able to take abstract ideas, the sort of thing you might hear at a CPD event – say, some aspect of cognitive science, or the notion of substantive and disciplinary knowledge – and unpack it so that we know what it looks like in specific contexts, such as a history classroom or a specific topic. 

I think much curriculum discourse tends to focus on:

  • Abstract ideas and approaches (SG-, SD+) that we need to unpack in the context of our own subjects (like this blog, for example!).
  • Specific examples of ideas, approaches etc (SG-, SD+) in specific subjects that we need to repack in order to understand how they might look at a greater level of abstraction.

LCT suggests a curriculum discourse in a school that exclusively focuses on one of these is likely to be problematic and instead it needs to ‘wave’ between the two. How might leaders help that to happen?

From the school leader’s perspective it can be useful to talk about abstract ideas, such as ‘retrieval’, but these then need to be unpacked within the context of a specific subject, explicated to colleagues in relation to specific examples and enacted in relation to specific curricular aims: this ‘unpacking’ will look different in different subjects, leading to teaching and curriculum approaches that are, rightly, quite different.

If we don’t unpack abstract ideas we get a ‘semantic flatline’. The idea remains in the abstract and it is difficult for teachers to develop an understanding of what it looks in their subject, in their classroom. We have probably all had the experience of being introduced to an idea or theory but not knowing what it looks like in practice. This is a challenge for anyone who is involved in running generic CPD courses. 

The reality, I think, is that it is very difficult for senior leaders to carry out unpacking outside of their own subject as they lack the disciplinary knowledge and concrete examples necessary to make it happen. This means the idea is then not translated effectively into the subject (where appropriate), or the subject becomes distorted so that subject practices themselves become geared towards the abstract and generic. In some ways this is what happened to national curriculum levels. 

When a leader goes on a course and learns about, say, spaced repetition, they might understandably come back and want to implement it across the school. I wouldn’t want to say to that leader that they mustn’t do this, but I would caution them to recognise that the process of unpacking spaced repetition means it might look different in different subjects, because the contents and contexts of subjects are different. I might also point out this means the intervention might not be universally effective. 

Perhaps the solution is for those with specialist subject knowledge – subject leaders and teachers – to do much of the work of unpacking abstract curriculum ideas to ensure integrity of the subject is preserved. It may also be that unpacking a particular theory in a particular subject reveals its limitations and prompts us to consider other approaches instead. A specialist’s eye is likely to be useful in spotting this.

This doesn’t mean there is no curriculum job for senior leaders to do, however. So what might that look like? For one thing leaders can play a vital role in creating the conditions in which subject teachers can discuss, debate and unpack ideas. For example they can support them in joining subject networks and reconfigure training so that it allows for deeper subject understanding, which is likely to be necessary for successful unpacking of educational ideas.

They can do more though as well. They may be well placed to introduce top-level ideas and approaches (which are subsequently unpacked in subjects). Or, as noted above, there will be aspects of curriculum practice in the school that are very context specific – particular examples, resources etc – which, if identified and repacked to a higher level of abstraction, might then be unpacked elsewhere in another subject and put to use. In short, leaders might observe something in one subject and then roll it out across the school. This is where senior leaders can be highly effective, if it’s done well. Except this is hard to do. Repacking might be a helpful alternative way of conceptualising what is being attempted, rather than relying on the fairly blunt term ‘sharing good practice’.

What might repacking look like? Leaders might take an idea or example from one part of the curriculum and rather than simply a ‘show and tell’ exercise, working with specialists to understand its principles, perhaps relate it to relevant theory, and make that knowledge available for staff elsewhere in the school – at an appropriate level of abstraction – before inviting the unpacking of this within another subject.

The problem can come, however, when the idea is not repacked sufficiently and moved up the semantic profile before it is then unpacked in another subject. At worst, it isn’t repacked at all and the concrete example from one subject is shoe-horned into another. Again, this risks distorting subjects. 

This is the difference between a leader saying, “I want every subject to use the scheme of work template the maths department is using” and “we’ve explored a range of subject schemes of work, there seem to be different approaches, and these are the principles that underpin them. What do you think would work in your subject? Why?” 

Tentative thoughts

In my view school leaders play an invaluable role in shaping the curriculum discourse of the school but the process of unpacking curriculum knowledge and practice may be best done by subject specialists. Leaders can be highly effective in cross pollinating ideas and approaches between subjects when they are conscious of the need for such things to be repacked appropriately, not simply transplanted from one subject context to another. 

As one final example, I hear a lot of talk in schools about curriculum concepts like ‘sequencing’ – rightly so. If we put ourselves in the shoes of a leader who is just taking up post in a school where staff haven’t thought too deeply about sequencing before, the leader needs a way of conceptualising how to tackle this. I suggest semantic waves may give us a way of doing this. 

Recognising the need to move from the general/abstract to more concrete/practical, and respecting the differences in how this looks across subjects, is perhaps an important step for this leader. In a sense it also builds in a level of accountability. Asking a head of department why they teach a particular thing in a particular sequence, or at a specific time, invites a conversation in which concrete examples can be repacked into more abstract concepts of curriculum design – like sequencing. Where such a rationale doesn’t exist and repacking is difficult the leader might suspect there is work to do to develop subject-level curriculum understanding.

In a nutshell

It’s plausible that all this is simply a convoluted route back to what many leaders intuitively facilitate in any case: movement from the generic to the specific.

I suppose I’m making the case that a degree of genericism can be helpful if that involves the introduction of abstract concepts that are then unpacked within subjects in ways that have fidelity with the subject itself. So, for that reason I don’t conclude that genericism is necessarily always problematic. I do, however, think it is likely to be if we don’t deliberately unpack and repack within subjects. This might be something leaders want to give some thought to.

It might be helpful to make this a more explicit part of how we consider developing curriculum practice. Thinking of this in terms of ‘semantic waves’ is one way leaders might reflect on the building of cumulative curriculum expertise across a school. 

Questions leaders might ask to probe how waves build curriculum knowledge:

  • How are we supporting subject specialists to unpack relevant ideas/approaches/theory in their own subject? 
  • Do we sometimes present ideas in the abstract but not provide time, space and trust for these to be unpacked within subjects? How might we improve this?
  • When attempting to roll out ideas from one part of the school do we work with subject specialists to repack it to a higher level of abstraction before enabling other teachers to unpack it within the context of their subject? Are we getting at the principles, rather than just ‘show and tell’ stuff?
  • Where we have a strong subject department, do we know why that is the case? Can we repack aspects of effective practice?
  • How easy will it be for subjects to unpack idea X in their subjects?

You can read more about LCT and its ‘semantics’ dimension in:

Maton, K. (2014) Knowledge and Knowers. Routledge. Oxfordshire

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